"Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a movie documentary that tells the story of the most unlikely Shakespeare Company in the world. It was one of only sixteen documentaries out of six hundred and twenty four submissions to be selected for its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, in 2005.
The last play that William Shakespeare wrote was "The Tempest" and it is a play in which the tempest of human emotions reflect a violent tempest at sea. It has an underlying theme of forgiveness, which makes it both a perfect, and an intriguing, choice to bring to the amateur actors and producers serving time in prion where they were able to become involved with the Shakespeare Behind Bars Theater Troupe. The prisoners are responsible for casting themselves in the play's roles according to how they felt able to identify with the characters, and see their own situations within them. The individual stories of the prisoners, including their background and the details of their violent crimes, are interwoven with the plot of the play, and each prisoner finds that by looking closely at the character that they are playing helps them to confront their own personal actions and decisions and in many ways changes the way they see themselves.
It is a very moving and emotionally charged film. Many of the prisoners are violent offenders and would not generally be seen as sympathetic, yet in getting to know them, and seeing them become as invested in their own lives as they are in the lives of the characters they are playing, is incredibly impactful.
The film is directed by Hank Rogerson, who also wrote it after coming up with the concept himself. His producer, Jiliann Spitzmiller, also happens to be his wife, and the couple have collaborated on projects for over twenty years. They also produced "Homeland" and "Circle Of Stories", both of which were also part of the Sundance Film Festival.
Since the making of the film, ten o the eighteen "The Tempest' cast members have been released from prison, and two have passed away whilst still incarcerated. 'Hal', who starred as Prospero, remains in prison, having his sentence extended each time he went before the parole board. He continues to further his passion for literature whilst in prison, and was rewarded with both a first place and a third place in the Pen Essay Competition. He will be eligible for parole again in 2025.
'Red' who plays Miranda in the play, was paroled in February 2008 but was sent back to prison on a new conviction two years later.
'Big G', Caliban in the Shakespeare performance, began a mentorship program for young offenders and worked in a dog training program with dogs surrendered to the county pound.
All three men learned much from the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, each finding that they had more demons than they had first imagined, but also learning that they too had the ability to work hard and achieve a goal, things that they had forgotten that they ever knew how to do.